After two compelling weeks of March Madness, the field of sixty-five has been whittled down to just four: North Carolina, Connecticut, Michigan State, and Villanova. Although the survival of such perennial powers reflects the fact that this year’s tournament has for the most part been anything but mad, the Final Four is still a far cry from the one that most fans envisioned just a few weeks ago. Although Villanova is making the trip to Detroit on the heels of Scottie Reynold’s vintage last-second shot, the dominance of these four teams has been on full display throughout the tournament. If you’re looking for some insight into who will once again distinguish themselves this weekend, here’s what you need to know about the upcoming games:
Villanova: After surviving a legitimate first-round scare against American, the Patriot League Champions, Villanova is possibly the hottest team heading to Detroit. After showcasing their superior athleticism and defense in a 93-77 dismantling of Duke, the third-seeded Wildcats proceeded to knock off Big East rival and number one seed Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight. Villanova is an exceedingly deep team, perhaps the deepest left in the field, and employs an aggressive style of play that reflects this advantage. Using contributors off the bench at almost every position, such as spark-plug point guard Corey Fisher and three-point specialist Corey Stokes, the Wildcats are able to attack the opposition from all angles. Carrying much of the offensive load for Villanova is senior leader Dante Cunningham, one of the most improved players in the Big East this season, and junior Scottie Reynolds, but other veterans such as Reggie Redding, Shane Clark, and Dwayne Anderson, are equally valuable to Villanova.
North Carolina: Unfortunately for Villanova, they find themselves matched up with an equally athletic and talented team from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Tar Heels were the pre-season favorites to capture the national title, and as of right now they have probably reclaimed that position. Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, and Wayne Ellington are all upperclassmen who decided to forego the NBA draft in 2008 so that they could return to Chapel Hill with one goal in mind: winning a national championship. But the key to this team is another NBA prospect, junior point guard and ACC Player of the Year, Ty Lawson. Lawson has been the catalyst for the Tar Heels all season long, and despite being hobbled by a toe injury in recent weeks, was still able to explode for 21 second-half points in Carolina’s second round victory over LSU. UNC is a much more cohesive and confident team with Lawson in the lineup, and his ability to perform at peak level will determine if the Tar Heels will be cutting down the nets this year.
Michigan State: Michigan State is in many ways the unknown element in the Final Four. A largely anonymous team that relies on its defense, depth, and athleticism, the Spartans’ run to the Motor City has been the best story of this tournament. Despite flying under the radar all season long, Michigan State’s dominant performance against Louisville showed that they are as equally deserving of their Final Four bid as their Big East and ACC counterparts. Tom Izzo has proven that he is the best tournament coach of this decade (this will be his fourth Final Four since 2000) and although it would shock many to see MSU win it all, they will certainly be playing with a chip on their shoulder. Sophomore point guard Kalin Lucas and big man Goran Suton will certainly have to continue their stellar tournament play if this is to happen, but the Spartans will also probably need another scorer to come up big for them, potentially athletic swingman Raymar Morgan or guard Chris Allen.
Connecticut: Connecticut is another familiar face in the Final Four, having been among the country’s elite all season long and claiming the number one spot for several different stretches this season. Entering the tournament skeptics questioned whether the Huskies were truly worthy of a number one seed, but they have responded by playing their best basketball of the season. Even in the midst of rumors of alleged recruiting violations, Jim Calhoun’s bunch has displayed an intensity and focus that has worn down the opposition. Hasheem Thabeet, AJ Price, and Jeff Adrien are all upperclassmen who know how to get the job done on both ends of the floor, and they have been the key to UConn’s tournament run. But whether the Huskies have enough firepower to win two more games will likely be determined by the play of lesser-known contributors such as junior forward Stanley Robinson and freshman guard Kemba Walker. After missing the first half of the season, Robinson has developed into a major contributor for UConn over the past few weeks, as evidenced by his performance against Missouri in which he filled the stat sheets with 13 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks. His addition to the lineup has been a huge part of the Huskies’ recent success. On the other hand, the loss of junior Jerome Dyson to injury has opened up playing time for Walker, and he finally made the most of this opportunity in the Elite Eight, exploding for 23 points on 7-9 FGs, with 5 rebounds and 5. A tough, lightning fast point guard from the Bronx, Walker has the potential to be one of the best players in the country.
In the end, these matchups all come down to three factors: experience, hunger, and defense. Jay Wright is the only coach travelling to Detroit who has yet to win a national championship, and not even a loss to Carolina will put a damper on the excellent season his team has had in reaching the first Final Four of his tenure. While Villanova certainly has bright days ahead of them, this year is simply not yet their time, and Carolina will prevail.
The Michigan State-UConn matchup will ultimately be determined by which team comes out hungrier and is able to set the tempo. A slow, tightly contested, back-and-forth battle favors the Spartans down the stretch, but if the Huskies are able to get out to an early lead, look for them to hold on for the victory.
Thus, featuring Hansbrough and Thabeet, the National Championship game will present a very alluring matchup between two centers of media attention, but its outcome will ultimately be determined by guard play. Whichever team shoots better from the outside will win this game, and in the end UConn’s superior defense will harass UNC into many difficult shots from all over the floor. This year was the Huskies’ eighth straight season in which they have led the nation in shot-blocking-a truly incredible statistic-and it is this commitment to defense that will set them apart, leading them to be crowned National Champions.